The shock doctrine of climate activism

Like many people of my age, my sole concession to online social networking is membership of that creepy palliative for job insecurity, LinkedIn.

By this means I’m connected to the shifting fortunes of semi-forgotten names from my past. Last week I was solemnly informed that an old friend is “currently working for the UN on Disaster Risk Reduction.”

As this former colleague survived an assortment of shaky episodes in OneWorld’s evolution, he should be well qualified for his new post.

The timing appropriately coincided with the move by the heavy mob from the UK development sector to shun disaster risk. Instead we’re encouraged to get stuck into Naomi Klein territory of disaster exploitation.

The Robin Hood Tax campaign proposes a financial transaction tax of 0.05% on day-to-day trades of the banking sector. The proceeds will benefit poverty reduction campaigns at home and abroad, together with programmes to tackle climate change in developing countries.

The campaign is unashamedly opportunist in “turning a crisis for the banks into an opportunity for the world.” It surfs the public wave of anti-banker sentiment, reinforced by signs of sympathy for a financial transaction tax amongst key G20 leaders.

The problem is that a transaction tax has to be levied globally in order to level the playing field. A UK campaign for a global tax is a little quixotic.

There’s a philosophical objection as well, elegantly argued by aid expert Owen Barder. If we can’t persuade governments of the moral imperative to allocate an explicit share of national income to eradicate global poverty, then we should not resort to a stealth tax. This degrades our action on inequality to the backstreets of rentier economics.

Enter Duncan Green, arch-realist and adherent to the mantra that advocacy should never step outside the boundaries of political possibility. For him aid has acquired an insurmountable image problem and there is no option but to seize this moment of backdoor political opportunity. Let’s make economic disaster sweat for development.

Green takes the same ruthless axe to the fight against climate change. By all means campaign for 1.5 degrees, for an end to carbon trading and other fantasies but be aware that the 2007 momentum for political action has dissipated.

Save our activist ammunition, he suggests, for the Messiah of a major climate disaster, preferably “one or more orders of magnitude greater than Hurricane Katrina, and affecting some/all of the major emitters.” Then exploit the shock for all it’s worth.

This won’t do at all for the Head of Research at Oxfam. We can’t target all those adaptation programmes on averting climate disaster whilst aligning advocacy strategy with their presumed failure. An industry built on ethics has to maintain some sort of dignity.

The dilemma for me is that I believe he’s probably right. The history of environmental activism suggests that change occurs as a reaction to calamity rather than soft prediction.

My leaning towards this counsel of despair may have been brought on by all those cheap headlines of recent days describing the European bond market as Greek Tragedy. Vaguely curious about the aptness of the analogy, I looked up the characteristics of this drama form. This is what I found:

“… suffering is brought on by a combination of human and divine actions, but is generally undeserved with regard to its harshness..…Although many tragedies end in misery for the characters, there are also tragedies in which a satisfactory solution of the tragic situation is attained.” (Classics Technology Center)

Evidently Euripedes knew a thing or two about climate change.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK